“I shook up the world!” Famous words uttered by “The Greatest” that not only came to define Muhammad Ali, but also the victory of the underdog. Back in 1964 no one gave Ali, then Cassius Clay, a chance to beat Sonny Liston, the monstrous and intimidating heavyweight champion of the world, the man who had twice demolished Floyd Patterson in less than a single round. But beat him Clay did, proving once again that the odds don’t predict the outcome.
Of course Ali is far from the only fighter to topple a giant from his pedestal. Who can forget when Buster Douglas vanquished undisputed heavyweight king Mike Tyson? What about April 22, 2001 in South Africa, when Hasim Rahman flattened champion Lennox Lewis with a single right hand bomb? Other upsets come to mind: Lloyd Honeyghan stopping Donald Curry to become welterweight king, Iran Barkley knocking out Thomas Hearns, Frankie Randall beating Julio Cesar Chavez, or Roberto Duran taking the decision in a brutal war over the younger and bigger Iran Barkley.
I have always admired the plight of the underdog, the fighters who are counted out before their opportunity to compete has even arrived. Perhaps the primary reason is their mindset of absolute faith and determination. Despite the fact few give them any chance, they believe in themselves with complete conviction. Having that kind of confidence is inspiring and merits admiration because for most of us, it’s all too easy to be consumed by self-doubt. To see someone prove all the naysayers wrong and triumph on the grand stage of a championship boxing match, that is truly inspiring. Underdogs show us that, no matter the odds or the prophecies of the naysayers, victory is always possible.
I think we can all identify with wanting to score that kind of victory. Many of us struggle with inner doubt and see ourselves as the underdog; I know I do. Now I will be the first to admit, my upbringing is not synonymous with hardship or poverty. I am lucky to have been raised in a middle-class home with much support, but at the same time I’ve had my struggles, and I got through them with hard work and persistence. It’s never easy to rebound from defeat, no matter what kind, but by facing head-on what may seem like insurmountable odds, one can find a way to persevere and overcome.
And when it comes to boxing, the fighter who, for me, embodies the ideal of the underdog more than any other, is Evander Holyfield, who celebrates his 59th birthday today. It’s easy to forget that at different times Holyfield’s amazing career was a battle against long odds, even at the beginning when he started out as a cruiserweight. He was a definite underdog when, in only his twelfth pro fight, he challenged experienced veteran and respected champion Dwight Muhammad Qawi, who dwarfed Evander in regards to ring experience. Holyfield was younger and fresher, but many thought Qawi just too big a challenge for Evander at that stage of his career.
In an incredibly grueling fifteen round slugfest, one later hailed as the cruiserweight “Fight of the Decade” by Ring magazine, Holyfield and Qawi went to war. Proving the veracity of his nickname, “The Camden Buzzsaw” applied unrelenting pressure on his young challenger, and while Holyfield had some success keeping distance and boxing at range, he was forced to trade at close quarters more often than he desired, forced to use his quicker hands to outwork and outland the champion while taking vicious punishment in return. The battle took a huge toll on both men, with Holyfield losing fifteen pounds of water weight during the fight and even urinating blood after it was all over. But it was somehow fitting that Evander had to emerge from such a brutal war to become a champion, and in the process demonstrate to himself and to the world his astonishing heart, will and determination.
Those qualities would be called upon repeatedly in a career that saw Evander Holyfield battle fighters who were naturally bigger and heavier. Another time when Holyfield proved the doubters wrong was when he went tooth and nail with Riddick Bowe in three fights, a man who vastly outsized him in height and weight. In the incredible tenth round of their first battle, Bowe landed a monstrous right uppercut that jolted Holyfield’s head back and put him in a world of hurt. The much bigger challenger, heavier by some thirty pounds, proceeded to hammer Holyfield around the ring, unloading vicious power punches to both head and body. To everyone’s amazement, Evander not only remained upright but eventually turned the tide in his favor, ending the round in control and out-landing his arm-weary opponent.
Although Holyfield lost that fight, he proved his unrelenting spirit by surviving that hellacious tenth round and going the distance with Bowe, who was arguably his career-best version of himself on that November 1992 night. And Evander proved himself again, not to mention scoring another upset, when he came back and defeated Bowe in the rematch one year later.
Of course there’s no better example of Holyfield’s capacity to upset the odds than the night he finally took on Iron Mike Tyson in 1996. Although Tyson was not the invincible force of his prime, he was still the most feared heavyweight on the planet. “The Real Deal” was a massive underdog heading into the clash and most experts viewed his challenge of “Iron Mike” as a suicide mission, one where the question of the fight was not who would win, but could the challenger survive without serious physical damage. But Evander Holyfield paid no attention to what the outsiders and skeptics believed; all he needed was to believe in himself and he did so unfailingly.
During the fight, the Atlanta native had to endure some tough moments, weathering some big shots from one of the most explosive punchers in the history of the heavyweight division. But never did Holyfield’s fighting spirit fail him. He took those bombs and made sure to always respond in kind, punctuating every exchange with his own solid blows. He was determined to stand up to Tyson and show him he wasn’t the least bit intimidated. In instances when “Iron Mike” threw a punch after the bell, Holyfield always immediately retaliated, making sure to get in the last shot. This was all part of Evander’s psychological gameplan, to impose his will and sear into Tyson’s mind that he could not intimidate the underdog challenger. And it worked, as Holyfield bullied the bully, on the way to scoring one of the greatest upsets in boxing history.
Not only do I appreciate Evander Holyfield for his career accomplishments, but also because he is the boxer who ignited my own passion for The Sweet Science. I was a teenager when I read his autobiography and I was enthralled by his career and his story, the fact that he always believed in himself, and that he routinely battled bigger, heavier men and more often than not emerged victorious. I appreciate the plight of underdogs because, no matter what, they soldier on and overcome the odds with tremendous self-belief, an extremely enviable quality. And I believe that if I can muster the same kind of determination and persistence as Evander Holyfield, I will put myself in the best possible position to achieve future success. Thank you, Evander, for the excitement and inspiration you’ve given millions of fight fans. And Happy Birthday!
— Jamie Rebner